By: Ari Levin
Two years ago, an undefeated Iowa team came to Evanston a week after Michigan handed the Wildcats their first loss of the season. Northwestern trailed just 16-10 at the half before allowing 24 unanswered points, losing 40-10. After that game, Iowa wouldn’t lose until the Big Ten championship game, before being blown out by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Northwestern wouldn’t lose again until the Outback Bowl, a 45-6 beatdown at the hands of Tennessee.
Last year when the two teams met in Iowa City, it was a much different story, with neither team in contention for the Big Ten West. Northwestern pulled out the win in a 38-31 thriller when the Hawkeye’s final drive ended with an interception by Trae Williams. Iowa finished the season at 8-5 after a 30-3 loss to Florida in the Outback Bowl, while Northwestern finished 7-6 after an upset victory over Pittsburgh in the Outback Bowl.
This year, the two teams return to Ryan Field on October 21st. Northwestern hopes to take another step forward for the franchise. But Iowa will be nothing to scoff at either. Let’s take a look at how the teams match up.
Iowa Offense vs Northwestern Defense
Iowa loses last year’s Quarterback C.J. Beathard, who was drafted in the 3rd round by the 49ers. Starting in his wake looks to be Sophomore Nate Stanley, who saw action in five games last season, throwing for 62 yards on 5-of-9 passing. Stanley played Defensive Back and Punter in addition to Quarterback in high school, as well as basketball and baseball. As a well-rounded athlete, he should improve on Beathard’s -12 rushing yards from last season (not a typo).
Stanley, should he win the starting job, may struggle to find weapons on offense. The top receivers on Iowa’s offense as of now are Matt VandeBerg and Nick Easley. VandeBerg, a Redshirt Senior, is Iowa’s only returning Receiver with a catch, and he only played in 4 games. He has battled injuries throughout his career, and missed Spring football with a broken foot. Easley joins the team as a Junior transfer from Iowa Western. Meanwhile, Northwestern returns the talented “Sky Team” defensive backs of Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro, Montre Hartage and Keith Watkins II. That could make it a rough day for Iowa’s passing offense.
But Iowa’s offense flows through its running game. In fact, Iowa ran for over 2,000 yards last year, more than they had through the air. Leading the pack were a duo of millennium-yard-rushers, Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels. Daniels graduated and is currently on the Patriots roster as an undrafted free agent. But Wadley will be back, returning his nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage, as will 4 of the 5 starters from Iowa’s dominant offensive line, which won the Joe Moore Award for Outstanding Offensive Line in College Football. Joining the squad will be 308 pound Sophomore Guard Keegan Render, who saw some action in every game last season. Basically, the ground game should be dominant. In order to beat Iowa, Northwestern will have to stop their run offense by getting penetration on the defensive line.
Iowa Defense vs Northwestern Offense
On defense, Iowa lost two of their biggest weapons to the draft. Jaleel Johnson (10 sacks) was picked in the 4th round by the Vikings, and Safety Desmond King (3 interceptions) was drafted by the Chargers in Round 5. Leading the defense will be Senior Linebacker Josey Jewell, who finished second in the Big Ten last year with 124 tackles. But it remains to be seen if the team can replace Johnson on a defensive line that already allowed nearly 150 rushing yards per game last season for 7th in the Big Ten.
Going up against that run defense will be Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, the ball carrier. As he enters his Senior year, Jackson will pass Damien Anderson as the school’s all-time rushing leader barring injury, as he needs just 356 yards to get there. Jackson posted a career-high 1,514 yards to lead the Big Ten, and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season. JJ should have another great season, and should get rolling early and often against a potentially porous Hawkeye defense.
Recently engaged Clayton Thorson will return to start at Quarterback. Thorson has the size and making of an NFL-caliber player, and has shows flashes of his potential in his two years in Evanston. The Wildcats QB took a big step forward last season with over 3,000 yards passing. If Thorson progresses further, he has a chance at being the top signal caller in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats biggest loss on offense was Wide Receiver Austin Carr, the Biletnikoff Award finalist and Big Ten leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, who joined the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent. Northwestern will likely struggle to replace him, as the team’s second leading receiver, Flynn Nagel, has only 40 receptions last year. Starting opposite Nagel would have been Senior Solomon Vault, but he will miss the season with an injury, and so the position remains open for now.
Iowa brings back Kicker Kieth Duncan for his Sophomore season. Last year, as Iowa’s only walk-on true Freshman to see action, Duncan was 38 for 39 on extra points, but attempted just 11 field goals, none longer than 41 yards, making 8 of them. This year the Hawkeyes may be more aggressive on field goal attempts as Duncan progresses further. Northwestern will have Freshman kicker Charlie Kuhbander, who was rated the #3 kicker recruit by Kohl’s Kicking.
Senior punter Hunter Niswander returns for the Wildcats. Niswander increased his average to 41 yards per kick last season, with a long of 62. Punting for Iowa will be walk-on Redshirt Sophomore Colten Rastetter. Rastetter punted just one time last season, for 42 yards. He averaged 40 yards at Clayton Ridge High School in Guttenberg, Iowa, a four-hour drive from Evanston.
King was the Hawkeye’s primary kick returner last year, averaging 28 yards per return. This year’s returner is slated to be Sophomore Receiver Devonte Young, who scored two return touchdowns in high school while playing both Wide Receiver and Defensive Back. For Northwestern, Vault was the main returner last season, but instead it will likely be Sophomore Receiver Jalani Roberts who gets the first stab at the job.
Iowa will need to have many players to step up to have a season similar to the one they had two years ago. A more likely result is to be slightly worse than last season, finishing near .500. However, Wadley has the potential to become a premier Running Back behind a stellar offensive line. When they face off against Northwestern, expect a ton of rushing yards on both sides. This is a game, though, that Northwestern should win, and if they live up to their full potential they will pretty easily.